MONALISA CHANGKIJA’S MONSOON MOURNING: by Dr. AJ Sebastian sdb

Monalisa Changkija. Monsoon Mourning. Heritage Publishing House.  Dimapur, 2013. reprint. pp.89, Price ₹ 300/-.

by Dr. AJ Sebastian sdb, Former Professor & Head, Dept. of English, Nagaland University

Following the adage that a poet “is a man speaking to men… endowed with more lively sensibility, …who has a greater knowledge of human nature…delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe” (Wordsworth 171), in Monsoon Mourning, journalist-poet Monalisa Changkija has penned down her reflections, dealing primarily with social concerns, daunting her in the backdrop of conflict and violence in Nagaland. The poems are thought provoking and disturb our self complacency. She has turned to poetry “to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us” (Arnold 260) and projects her angst and concerns, thereby bringing to readers issues affecting society at large.

In February 1964, in a speech honouring Robert Frost, President John F. Kennedy referred to a poet as a critic of society and a champion of the individual mind and sensibility. “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment” (“Poetry and Power.” www.theatlantic.com).

The poems in the collection, written from 1980s to the present day, embody her angst and hope, tracing a part of Naga history through ther prism of poetry. The poems have been segmented into those dealing with Reflections, Death/Violence & Bloodshed, Nature Reflections and pithy Thoughts.

In “Silly Me” Monalisa longs to build her fairytale world when nature is spent. Who knows, the silly thoughts may become a reality soon when the last tree is felled. Ecocritic Ross makes a pertinent observation when he writes: “In recent years, we have become accustomed to seeing images of a dying planet…The clichés of the standard environmental image are known to us all: on the one hand, belching smokestacks, seabirds mired in petrochemical sludge, fish floating belly-up, traffic jams…and clearcut forests; on the other hand, the redeeming repertoire of pastoral imagery, pristine, green, and unspoiled by human habitation, crowned by the ultimate global spectacle, the fragile, vulnerable ball of spaceship earth” (171).

Here I am, building a boat
to sail the oceans,
sitting on my lonely hill top,
overlooking valleys,
where human hearts and minds
design, devise and dispose.
Silly me!
Oh, it’s just one of
life’s many miscalculations,
mistakes, missteps and misjudgments,
that’s all there is to it.
The madness, nay the fury,
is inherent in them,

But some of us are destined
to build boats on hill tops
and pay for it (Changkija 5).

In “If Only…” the poet wants to remain silent as she is helpless while the other person doesn’t give her a listening ear:

If only I could tell you what i believe.
But you want to hear only
what you want to hear
So I remail silent (17).

Her attitude of silence is not due to fear of consequences, but for the sake of inner peace, since her interaction with the other is a futile exercise. Her neighbour has an all knowing attitude and ‘…canot think and look beyond/ the space’ in which he/she is ‘imprisoned’. She sympathises with the neighbour as he/she is unable to come out of his/her ‘comfort zone’ and survive.
The poet takes a serious note of the ‘comfort zone’, the behavioural state within which a person operates in an anxiety-neutral condition, using a limited set of behaviours to deliver a steady level of performance, usually without a sense of risk (wikipedia.org).The reflection takes the readers to be aware of the mental conditioning that causes a person to create and operate mental boundaries that can create an unfounded sense of security (wikipedia.org), leading one to live in a world of one’s own.
“Don’t wake me up” comes as a finale to the ‘comfort zone’ attitude in “If Only…” where the speaker wishes to live in his/her own make believe world of slumber.

Don’t wake me up in the morning
even if the sky falls down
I don’t want to hold it up anymore.
I’ll be asleep and if it falls down on me
neither the sky nor I will break (Changkija 18).

Poems of death, violence and bloodshed form the bulk of the poems in the collection, giving the readers a peep into the various social issues confronting the Nagas.

“Not be Dead,” was primarily written with the journalist community of Nagaland in mind in the backdrop of the assassination of Chalie Kevichusa, editor orf Ura Mail on 23 September 1992. The poet declares that nothing can deter her from freely speaking out her mind.

If tomorrow
my body
is riddled
with bullets,
I shall not be dead
Nor will I
be defeated and silenced (23).

Speaking of the political scenario of Nagaland, the poet declares her stand of neutrality as she whouldn’t allow herself to be hired by either the politicians nor those who threaten and intimidate.

Monalisa turns a realist, in “Cain’s Shoes,” calling our attention to refrain from hasty judgments, going by appearance of things, without full knowledge of reality. What might look apparently true from a distance, may, in reality turn out to be untrue. She invites her readers to join her in assessing things from a neutral position, refraining from taking sides by prejudices. The poet shifts the sequence to George Bush and Osama bin Laden, to prove the duo wrong being in Cain’s shoes.

Talk to George Bush Junior
or Osama bin Laden;
they’ll tell you,
they find themselves
in Cain’s shoes today.
And who cares for the millions
that wear Abel’s shoes?
Rejection has always propelled retaliation (23).

Reflecting on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, as recounted in Genesis chapter 4, the poet alludes to the fact of conflict and warfare that continue to purge society, as people continue to be in Cain’s shoes. When God questioned Cain for the crime committed, he merely retorted: “I do not know… Am I my brother’s guardian? (Genesis 4:9-10). His sense of rejection, when he didn’t find favour in God’s sight, led him to kill his brother. Monalisa keeps questioning the attitude of retaliation and revenge that wouldn’t bring about any lasting solution to problems, except making us continue to live in exile like Adam and Eve after their expulsion from Paradise. Her clarion call is to forget the past in forgiveness and reconciliation, as all of us have inherited a bit of Cain’s shoes.

The past must be forgotten
but that is an exercise in folly
for all of us have a little
of Cain in us
and his shoes fit us perfectly.
Alas, so does Abel’s! (Changkija 28).

“Child of Cain” was penned after the twin bomb blasts at Dimapur’s Hongkong Market and Railway station on 2 October 2004, killing hundreds and injuring innumerable people, including a group of school children on an excursion to see the train for the first time.

“May Be” is a reflection on death that comes all of a sudden, when one is least prepared. Once, she was told that her husband had suddenly died. But in reality, someone, having the same name had passed away. Soon, the news got further twisted and it was rumoured that she herself had died. Someone brought the news to her mother-in-law, who came dashing to the poet’s home, but never bothered to verify the same. Her husband came to know of it. While returning home, and finding her safe and sound, he was casual in telling her of her rumoured death. The incident makes the poet reflect on her own death when at last it would happen one day.

But how does one prepare for death?
How does one prepare for something
one is sure of;
one is waiting for?
How does one prepare
to say the final adieu?
Surely, when death comes,
it must come silently,
without warning
and leave the living in disarray? (29)

She feels cheated, having heard of her rumoured death and those dear and near that didn’t bother about her. She imagines that none would bother when the reality of death occurs in her life. Like the metaphysical poets, Monalisa reflects on the paradox of life and death.

“They say…” is a poem that speaks of time as ‘a whirlpool that spins within itself’ (31). In this movement of time the poet finds those that remain very firm in their convictions and ‘refuse to be voiceless or silenced’ (31). The poet portrays a subaltern concept by which she is convinced that the silenced can speak the loudest by their muted life.

“At my funeral” is evocative of Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a funeral, in my Brain.” Monalisa pictures the scenes of her funeral. As the mourners beat their breasts and wept, there were those who busied themselves carrying her ‘lifeless body with great organizational/ and oratorical skills’ (32). There began the last rites where they bid her farewell. There is irony in the expreassion:

A farewell
with full assurance
the dead do not
react, respond and reply (32).

The focus shifts to the funeral orations where people spoke merely to fulfill social obligation.

The right people
said the right things
but failed to say anything right (32).

Her musing leads the poet to think of death as a ‘perpetual release…/ a parole/ from the dead,’ (33) an escape from perpetual imprisonment. The poet has been very articulate in her ironic look at conventional social do’s and dont’s at death, where mere lies are uttered.

In “Stop this Nightmare”, the poet expresses her frustration and utter shock at the perpetration of fear and brutal killings in Nagaland by the security forces. She pleads helplessly:

Stop, please stop this endless nightmare
wherein I read of another shot dead,
another apprehended, another tortured and maimed
Stop this nightmare, I beg of you (40).

Her helplessness continues though she keeps making her protests through media, writing of social consequences of violence, leaving ‘… another child orphaned/ another girl abused, another woman widowed’ (40). Monalisa continues to recount the history of violence that has torn people apart making them victims of geography, history and politics. The poet ends her tirade seeking divine intervention.

In “Shoot,” the poet stands her ground and challenges the architects of violence and utters in utter disgust:

Go ahead, shoot and blast us to eternity
I give you my word, we will not move
Neither from our stand nor to distract your aim

We will stand firm and not move
From our dreams of brotherhood (41).

Nothing can deter her from her conviction in establishing Naga brotherhood, despite all threats from those wielding mere gun-power.

The trilogy of poems “Of a People Unanswered” begins with with a land of green hills with rice fields and forests ‘reduced to barren brown’ as flora and fauna have been destroyed with ever increasing industrialization, with factories and mills filling the landscape. In the name of progress, nature has been laid waste, bringing famine and decay in the land. The poem brings out powerfully her ecological concerns.

In “Of a People Unanswered II,” the poet delves into the history of Nagaland, given ‘Special status’ :

…to be preserved and promoted
for anthropological studies
within shaven hills and rare orchids
in pursuance of your “tryst with destiny” (36).

She feels that people have been cheated by mere promises of “ tryst with destiny”, while her people have become merely ‘a market for your bourgeoisie and…defence strategy’ (36).

In the third poem, Monalisa affirms her determination to be herself. She challenges the gun-wielding anti-social elements who fail to see beyond their AK-47.

Don’t waste your time
laying down diktats
and guidelines
on how to conduct my life
on matters personal and political (37)

The volume fittingly concludes with a few nature reflections, expressing the poet’s ecological concerns. Ecologists are alarmed by the “awareness that we have reached the age of environmental limits, a time when consequences of human actions are damaging the planet’s basic life support systems…Either we change our ways or we face global catastrophe, destroying much of beauty and exterminating countless fellow species in our headlong race to apocalypse” ( Glotfelty xx). It is not merely environmental rhetoric that is continually challenging us by various green movements and their plea to save planet earth.

“Environmental Extinction & Star Wars” brings to focus Monalisa’s forebodings of the extinction of planet earth even though scientific man has scaled other planets and is on the verge of star wars. Environmental studies have shown that nearly 16,000 of the world’s plant and animal species face extinction largely because of the destructive behaviour of mankind Over-exploitation, climate change and habitat destruction are to blame for a crisis that has wiped out at least 27 species from the wild over the last two decades, according to the World Conservation Union’s (IUCN) red list of threatened species. The report says more than 7000 animal species are threatened with extinction (http://www.smh.com.au/articles).

I often write
On leaving behind
“footprints on the sands of time”
with one thought constantly
at the back
of my mind-

At the rate
we’re “advancing”
we forget, there is no
place in space
to leave behind
our footprints
at any point of time ( Changkija 48).

In the backdrop of the growing global ecological concerns, study of ecologically related poems becomes very relevant. As it has been observed by Jonathan Bate that Nature is a term that needs to be contested, not rejected. It is profoundly unhelpful to say ‘there is no nature’ at a time when our most urgent need is to address and redress the consequences of human civilization’s insatiable desire to consume the products of the earth. We are confronted for the first time in history with the possibility of there being no part of the earth left untouched by man.

Human civilization’ has always been in the business of altering the land, whether through deforestation or urbanization or mining or enclosure or even the artificial reimposition of ‘nature’ through landscaping… When there have been a few more accidents at nuclear power stations, when there are no more rainforests, and when every wilderness has been ravaged for its mineral resources, then let us say ‘There is no nature’ (Bate 171).

How are we to save our fragile world from ecological disaster through global warming, pollution and deforestation? World over environmental awareness is created to make people live more eco-friendly and to bring about environmental conservation through protection of flora and fauna and by providing clean energy and sustainable development. Today World peace is threatened not only by warfare and conflicts, but also through lack of due respect for nature by its irresponsible and reckless exploitation and destruction.

Joseph W. Meeker in his book The Comedy of Survival: Studies in Literary Ecology writes:

Human beings are the earth’s only literary creatures…. If the creation of literature is an important characteristic of the human species, it should be examined carefully and honestly to discover its influence upon human behaviour and the natural environment – to determine what role, if any it plays in the welfare and survival of mankind and what insight it offers into human relationships with other species and with the world around us. It is an activity which adapts us better to the world or one which estranges us from it? (3-4).

“Wooing Wind I” draws attention to mountain lake waters, dancing to the tune of the wooing wind, bringing magic realism in the lap of nature. Monalisa’s observation of nature in its minute details is essential for any one to live life to its fullness, inspite of the miseries of life. As a sequence in “Wooing Wind II”, she invites the listener to sit beside her and spend time in contemplation of the mysteries nature. Incidentally, these poems dedicated to Rev. Kethozelho Keyho, on his ordination day in 2005, may be interpreted as one’s need for serenity in the lap of nature to be effective in God’s ministry.

“Vernal Showers V” brings to focus the love that the poet has for monsoon showers. The reflection leads her to her parched life that can be transformed by love and concern reciprocated. Like water that transforms a parched land into fertile field for growth in nature, mutual love and concern in interpersonal relationship, can drive away every fear and fatigue in couples.

If I should ever
pour on you
like vernal showers,
…let me wash away
your fear and fatigue
hold me forever
in the corners
and crevices
of your core ( Changkija 47).

An ecological reading of some of the poems in the collection draws attention to responsible stewardship of the earth and to maintain the delicate balance of the total created order supporting life on this earth. Critics have pointed out the danger facing our environment and turn desperate about the future of planet earth. Bill McKibben rightly bemoans: ‘We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth manmade and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us’ (54). The poets assessed in this paper make us conscious of the Environmental degradation ecologists are alarmed by ‘man’s assault upon the environment through contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials (Carson 23).

“Sentence so severe” could be placed as a fitting conclusion to Monsoon Mourning, recalling to mind the supreme sacrifice of Christ who suffered and died to redeem mankind:

A sentence so severe
a sacrifice so supreme
this was the decree
not to condemn, but to save
emanating from love
unconditional, uncompromising and complete (Changkija 38)

Makintg an introspection of her life of seeking strength and security in worldly pursuits, the poet seeks divine grace to bring about fullness of life:

Tell me, Lord why do you believe
I am worth
that sentence so severe
that sacrifice so supreme
of a Sinless Lamb,
Your Only Begotten Son? (39)

Like Arnold, Monalisa finds in poetry “a criticism of life under the conditions fixed for such a criticism by the laws of poetic truth and poetic beauty” (Arnold 261). Reeling in the midst of social issues, the poet does not write with the idea of “art for art’s sake” but has noted that “the problem of poetic communication is peculiarly a social one” ( Wimsatt 472). As she deals with human experiences, she has been powerful in exerting her social, psychological, and spiritual function as a poet, expressing “the thoughts, feelings, moods, points of view and hopes of the new epoch and of its new class” (Trotsky. www.marxists.org). The poems are a window to some of the contemporary social concerns prevalent in the Naga society which call for concerted effort from all quarters. She has been very articulate in expressing her anguish which will certainly have their due share of influence on society ushering in societal transformation in the midst of social woes.
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Works Cited
Arnold, Matthew. “The study of Poetry.” English Critical Texts. Ed. D.J. Enright and Ernest De Chickera. New Delhi: OUP, 1986.
Bate, Jonathan. “Foreword”. The Green Studies Reader. Laurence Coupe. Ed. Reprint 2004. London and New York: Routledge, 2000, 167-171.
Carson, R. Silent Spring. London: Penguin, 1999. First published 1962.
Changkija, Monalisa. Monsoon Mourning. Dimapur: Heritage Publishing House, 2013.
“Comfort Zone.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comfort_zone.
Glotfelty, Cheryll. “Introduction.” The Ecocritism Reader:Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Glotfelty, Cheryll and Harold Fromm (Eds). Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1996. pp.xv-xxxvii.
Holy Bible, The. Revised Standard Version. London: Catholic Trust Society, 1966.
McKibben, Bill. 1990. The End of Nature. London: Penguin.
Meeker, Joseph. The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and the Play Ethic. 3rd Ed. Tucson : University of Arizona Press, 1997.
“Poetry and Power.” www.theatlantic.com.
Ross, A. 1994. The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life: Nature’s debt to Society. London: Verso.
Trotsky, Leon. “The Social Roots and the Social Function of Literature,” 1923.
http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1923/art/tia23b.htm.Downloaded on 22 November
Wimsatt, William K. and Cleanth Brooks. Literary Criticism: A Short History. New Delhi: Oxford & IBH Publishing Co., 1957.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” English Critical Texts. Ed. D.J. Enright & Ernest De Chickera. New Delhi: OUP, 1983.  www.smh.com.au/articles/2004/11/17/1100574544344.html?from=storylhs. Downloaded on 05/08/13.

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ABOUT THE POET

Monalisa Changkija born in 1960, finished her schooling in Little Flower School, Kohima and went on for further studies to Delhi and holds an MA in Political Science from Delhi University .She is married to Bendang Longkhumer and has two daughters. She is a professional journalist, poet and writer. Her poetry collections include Weapons of Words of Pages of Pain (1993), Monsoon Mourning (2007; 2013 rpt). She is the only woman proprietor, publisher and editor of a daily – Nagaland Page, Dimapur.